Dealing with Tantrums

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak



“I’m NOT going to do my homework! You can’t make me. I HATE you.” Seven-year-old Alex screamed at Beth, his mother, one day after school.     When she tried to take his hand and lead him to the kitchen table to do his work, he ran away and began screaming even more. It became apparent that it would take some kind of physical restraint to get him to the table and Beth, six months pregnant, was too tired and too overwhelmed by her condition to engage in any kind of physical confrontation with her son.  She tried another few minutes to negotiate, then to beg, then, finally, she gave up in frustration.  “I don’t know what to do with him when he gets that way.” Beth told me in session, “He used to be so compliant, but since he turned seven, its like he’s possessed.”

Tantrums tend to peak at two points in childhood, from age two to three, when children’s emotional and physical resources are easily exceeded by their environment, and then again from age seven to eight. Traditionally, developmental psychologists like Louise Bates-Ames of Yale University’s Gesel Insititute attributed this second burst of tantrums to anxiety related to school separation, but surprisingly, I have observed the phenomenon among many homeschooled children as well. As far as why tantrums often recur or become more acute at this stage, the jury is still out.  But news regarding the treatment of these tantrums is far more optimistic. The following tips are part of a format I use in my tele-counseling practice that, except in the rarest cases, practically eliminate such tantrums in as little as four weeks.

Step One: Check Your Affection Connection.

Children at this age tend to feel insecure about themselves as they begin to engage in more peer relationships. Whether they attend school or are homeschooled, they are putting themselves on the line socially much more (relationships were previously fairly tightly monitored by adults, but now they are becoming more and more peer-directed.) As such, they need to know that their home base with you is secure. Ask yourself, “How much time do I actually spend cuddling, holding, complimenting or doing activities with this child?” It is probably somewhat less than you used to do. That’s o.k., but if Johnny feels insecure with his friends, AND he isn’t getting the affection from you he is used to, he is going to feel like “Nobody loves me” and you are going to get tantrums.

Step Two: Are You Being Consistent?

From age three to five, most parents have been teaching kids the rules.     Around age six or so, children tend to start “getting it” more consistently. Not perfectly, of course, but just enough to make the parent think that he or she can ease up a bit. Backing off can be an important part of helping children learn self-monitoring (it is unhealthy for us to breathe down our children’s necks constantly) but be careful not to back off too much, or before you know it, you will have a little Napoleon on your hands.  Now is the time to clarify the rules and review consequences. Some time when the child is already calm. Review the one or two most important rules that will begin to restore order THAT WEEK. Likewise spell out the consequences of not obeying that rule (Don’t tax your brain. Keep consequences simple and connected to the offense). Concentrate on consistent enforcement of that rule for the entire week. Do this over the next three to four weeks, until both you and the child are back in the swing of things.

Step Three: Assess the Intention.

Tantrums, even at this age, are usually the result of a child’s emotional or social resources being exceeded by his environment. What are the academic, social, or other challenges that are most frustrating TO YOUR CHILD (not you). Don’t know? Ask. You might discover that “we just started learning long division and it makes me feel stupid, ” or “Jimmy says that I’m a sissy because I’m not allowed to play Super Death Bunnies on the computer” or perhaps it is even something much more serious, though it needn’t be.  Chances are, these challenges are either directly causing the tantrums (because the child doesn’t have an appropriate way to address the resulting frustration) or they are indirectly contributing to the tantrums by increasing the child’s overall stress level, just like you get snappish when that project is due the same week you have to take your mother to the doctor and it is your turn to run the church bake sale. Help your child address these stressors well. By decreasing the pressure in the pipeline, you decrease the likelihood of tantrums.

Step Four: Mate Check

Though it is an ideal to continue to work toward, parents rarely agree completely on parenting strategy. When tantrums start, parents can often become pitted against each other as the stricter parent starts accusing the other parent of being too soft, or the other way around. Now is not the time to start having these fights. They have nothing to do with Johnny, except that they make him feel more insecure (because the two most important people in his world now seem to hate each other, and he thinks its his fault) and thus increase the likelihood of tantrums. Likewise, though you will be tempted, this is not the time for the “iron fist.” I am referring, of course, to ill advised parenting “techniques” such as even more creative (but illogical) consequences, angry lectures, and corporal punishment. Invariably these things will make the tantrums worse as they increase the child’s sense of insecurity, thus the stress, and then you begin to see more intense, and even violent tantrums. If the parents respond even more forcefully, you may end up with a child who seems completely out of control, even possessed as the child flies into a rage from which he or she cannot extract him or herself for several hours (until the overdose of adrenaline and cortisol have run its course).  There is much more to say on this topic, but this should get you started. Soon, you could be on your way to taming those terrible tantrums, and maybe breathe a little bit easier.


James was a seven-year-old boy who had terrible tantrums whenever he faced his homework..“I can’t get him to do anything” his mother, Liz, complained, “If I try to make him sit there and do it, he has a fit. He’s so defiant.  Similarly, another couple recently called me because their daughter, eight-year-old Melissa, began having more vicious tantrums in the last six months. Her parents, Frank and Laurie, explained that she had always been, to use their word, “temperamental,” but that recently, she had been becoming unbearable. “I tried to send her to time-out, and she fought me so hard that she almost broke my thumb.” Laurie explained. “I am at a loss for what to do.”  Most parents tend to think that once early childhood is a memory, the child will leave behind the tantrums that are common to that phase of development. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  Children of seven, eight, and even older, can indulge in tantrumming behavior that can have serious consequences to the parent-child relationship, not to mention school, social, and family functioning.

The most common reason for late-occurring tantrums is that parents have made the mistake of being too easy on tantrumming behavior in the earlier years. Because parents correctly assume that tantrums are common to early childhood, they incorrectly assume that the child will outgrow those tantrums with time and little, if any, intervention on their part. But time does not cure this problem, skills do, and without the skills that are learned by loving but firm system of discipline, tantrums will simply worsen with the years. Fortunately, it is not too late to change. In my own practice, I have found that once the intention behind the tantrums can be assessed and a more respectful way to achieve those intentions can be taught to the child, tantrums will often decrease significantly within two weeks, and disappear within a month, but it takes consistency, and a willingness to be lovingly firm.  While some parents and children require professional assistance to overcome tantrumming behavior resulting from more serious concerns, for example, childhood anxiety or depressive disorders, or acting out related to a serious psychological or social stressor (abuse, divorce, major move, etc.) most children respond to simple steps such as the following. Try these as a way of getting started.

Step One: Intervene Earlier.

Too often, tantrums result because parents wait until the child is already worked-up before trying to set appropriate limits.     If your child is prone to tantrums, you must begin intervening earlier than you usually do. Michelle, the mother of seven-year-old John-Paul, said, “I used to let him roughhouse and play very loudly in the house because I thought it was good for him to work off that steam, even though the noise drove me crazy. But I noticed that he tantrummed more often when I let him get so worked up. His energy became so high in his play, that he couldn’t reign it in when it came time to do something else. I finally started putting limits on how boisterously he could play in the house. That brought his intensity level right down and I found that since he was calmer in general, he didn’t get so violently angry when he got frustrated with me for asking him to clean his room or do his homework, or just said ‘no’ to him for some reason.”

Step Two: Let the Child Deal with Their Own Feelings.

First the bad news: There is nothing you can do to make your child get control of his emotions. Now the good news: You are not obliged to get control of your child’s emotions.     Let me explain. Your child’s emotions belong to him. Therefore it is his job to get control of them–not yours. While it is good to offer some verbal and emotional support, after a certain point, the child starts thinking that it is your job to make him feel better because you have been so good at “talking him down” in the past. Unfortunately, as life becomes more complicated, and the child becomes more intelligent, it becomes harder for you to talk him down, and your alleged failure at calming him down will make him even angrier, having a paradoxical effect on his behavior.

If you notice that the more you try to calm your child down, the more hysterical she becomes, you are probably talking too much. Give your child the chance she needs to sit with her own feelings and work them out by trial and error. Having first tried to offer a reasonable (but not extended) amount of emotional support to a distressed, angry, or frustrated child, if the child is becoming more upset, simply say, “Well, I have done the best I can to try to help you with this. Now, you need to figure it out for yourself. I am willingly to talk with you more, but only if you can be calm and respectful. Until then, you must go (to their room, or other, less desireable place) until you are ready to be calm and respectful.  The child must stay in that place until his mood and behavior reflect a real change in attitude. Don’t let him out just because he says, “I’m ready.”  Make sure that the expression on his face, his behavior, and his tone of voice, say he is ready. The first few times you do this, the child may end up being in his quiet place even up to several hours as he wrestles with his darker emotions, but as he learns that he had better direct his energy inward if he ever expects to see another human being, the time alone will decrease to minutes, even seconds in some cases.

Step Three: Teach and Practice.

Tantrums often result because the child doesn’t have a more appropriate means to say what he needs to say or achieve his intended goals. It does little good to lecture. You need to teach alternative behaviors and have the child rehearse it in front of you. If the child speaks disrespectfully, say, “Please say that again more respectfully” and require him to say it–over and over if necessary– until the words, facial expression, and tone of voice convey the respect you are seeking.  Similarly, if the tantrum was provoked by an argument with a sibling, then once the child is calm (see step two) rehearse the scene. Take the role of your child’s sibling, and periodically step out of the role to coach your child through the appropriate response to the things you say and do.  Just remember, children learn mostly by doing. When it comes to teaching any subject, expecially good behavior, rehearsing beats lecturing hands down.  Following these three simple steps can help you be on the road to a tantrum free household in no time

Comments are closed.